SMOC, town urged to 'get grasp on reality' Tuesday, April 29, 2009
Dan McDonald 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- With town and SMOC officials at an apparent impasse and Town Meeting on the eve of considering approving $350,000 more for legal defense of the nonprofit's federal lawsuit, the Rev. Richard Hurst last night urged that both sides settle.

In October 2007, the South Middlesex Opportunity Council sued the town and elected individuals serving on volunteer boards, including selectmen, Planning Board members, and Town Meeting members, alleging a handful of officials tried to block expansion of its social services and violated federal housing law in doing so.

SMOC alleges the town discriminated against the disabled through attempting to stall projects involving a drug rehabilitation facility and a veterans shelter.

Thus far, Town Meeting has set aside $400,000 for the defense of the case, with another $350,000 special appropriation to be considered this week at.

Hurst, pastor of Lutheran Church of Framingham, sat on a panel of four town leaders who offered their views on the case last night.

Hurst said both sides are still fixated on "who is going to win this and who is going to lose this."

He implored both the town and SMOC to "sit down, get a grasp of reality, and work this out."

Former selectman John Kahn suggested there was plenty of blame to go around. The lawyers for both sides, said Kahn, have taken over.

Kahn also suggested Framingham selectmen have fiscally mismanaged the case. He pointed to a memo sent to Town Meeting members highlighting unanticipated legal costs that have already been undertaken. Kahn suggested the memo points to the fact that the board has already used up its last allotment of special appropriation cash.

"It's not good management to simply turn on the spigot and let it run," he said.

Kahn said he does not believe the latest request for money will be the last. He estimated the case could cost more than $1 million when all is said and done.

Paul Mina, president of United Way of Tri-County, had similar thoughts.

"If the money was gone, do you think there'd be a problem? Right now they'd be settling like this," said Mina, snapping his fingers.

SMOC did not escape scrutiny, either.

During a public comment period, resident Tony Chiccarelli got emotional when deriding SMOC for "rewarding bad behavior," by offering housing to alcoholics and drug addicts. He suggested SMOC was a detriment to Framingham neighborhoods.

SMOC also took heat for seeking punitive damages that would leave the individual town officials, the vast majority of whom serve on volunteer boards, not covered by the town's insurance and on the hook financially.

Others have accused SMOC of trying to curtail freedom of speech by naming people in the lawsuit who have spoken out against its programs.

The most recent incident that has perhaps typified such criticism in town was the shooting of a Framingham police officer. The man accused of the shooting, Sahr Josiah, lived in SMOC housing at 25 Deloss St.

Kahn suggested, "there is an inadequacy in the supervision of management in some of the facilities SMOC manages."

"And Deloss is the ultimate unfortunate disaster that follows when you don't pay attention to what's going on," said Kahn.

In addition, Town Meeting member Kathy McCarthy said it is not right that SMOC has some town officials "worried they might lose their homes, their livelihood...and the right to state what they believe."

Kahn also said SMOC's board is "increasingly isolated from the community at large," because it no longer has representatives serving in Framingham government serving on its board.

Not everybody criticized SMOC.

After the forum, resident Carolyn Phelps described herself as broken down from an abusive relationship three years before she found SMOC and used some of its programs. She now works for a firm in Framingham's Technology Park.

"There are drug addicts and alcoholics anywhere," she said. "What if it was your child who needed help? Wouldn't you want there to be somewhere for them to go?"

Mina said his organization has tried to bring both sides together twice. Other organizations have tried as well, but every time "at the 11th hour the bottom falls out."

"Good people can disagree," said Mina.

Send comments to: